How Religion Is Defined

Religion is a complex concept that can be defined in multiple ways. For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power or powers”, while the Concise Oxford English Dictionary takes a more functional approach to the term by defining it as “a form of life with distinctive practices that unite people into a moral community”.

Scholars are aware that the definition they choose determines their understanding of religion; thus, the question of how to define the term shapes much of religious study. As such, a number of scholars have attempted to address this problem by shifting the focus from hidden mental states to visible institutional structures (Schilbrack 2021).

The result of this move is the development of social taxons that impose a hierarchy on the different cultural types they describe, including the category of Religion. This has led to criticisms that such taxons are non-reflexive, ignoring the fact that they also impose hierarchies on the social genus of which they speak.

Regardless of how one defines the category, most scholars agree that there is a link between religion and day-to-day behavior. Furthermore, the emergence of a global network of religions demonstrates that religion is not simply a phenomenon of the past but an enduring human need. In addition, the latest Pew Research Center data show that religious Americans tend to be more engaged in their families and communities than those who are not religious.